For the first off-season since around 2005, the Phillies fan base is less than enthusiastic about the team’s chances at their third World Series ring. The reasons are numerous and well-documented, from the lack of any flashy free agent signings or trades over the winter, to the advancing age of the team, to the nagging injuries to team stalwarts like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay. The outfield situation is far from stable, with the assortment of Delmon Young, Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and John Mayberry, Jr. providing little assurance both defensively and offensively. However, despite all of these gloomy factors conspiring to put a damper on our expectations history has proven that when the bell rings and the games count, anything is possible.
In all my decades of being a diehard baseball fan, I’ve seen teams come out of nowhere to have winning seasons beyond all expectations, and I believe that this Phillies team has as much if not more talent than most of them. The most obvious local example was the 1993 Phillies. I remember calling a friend the day they signed Pete Incaviglia, and started dropping some choice profanities about Phillies ownership for dragging us into another season of pathetic offense, given that we at least had a legitimate number one starter in Curt Schilling at the time. Needless to say, that team went on to the World Series, but more impressively to me, beat a Braves team in the last true NLCS that was in my opinion the best squad that Atlanta ever had in their long, division-winning run. Consider the key players on that team: Ron Gant, David Justice, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones, Otis Nixon…in addition to a starting rotation with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and Mark Wohlers as their closer (before he lost his control of course). Obviously the Phillies were not coming off of a string of championship-calibur seasons as this squad has, far from it. But the fact that the collection of players that we had on that team slayed the Braves to get to the Series was always more impressive to me than the six-game World Series performance against the Blue Jays.
The other Phillies squad that I remember with fondness is the all-but-forgotten 1983 Wheeze Kids, a collection of former Big Red Machine veterans that included Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Joe Morgan. Their pitching rotation consisted of the most diverse and unlikely combination of arms I had ever seen in Philly, with John Denny having a Cy Young season that he would never replicate anywhere again…add Charlie Hudson, Jerry Koosman, and Steve Carlton to the mix, and the result was a Phillies squad that ended up sweeping the Dodgers in the NLCS after being pummeled by them all season. After slugging .467 in the NLCS, Mike Schmidt went 1 for 20 with a broken bat single in the World Series, and the team batted under .200, losing to a resurgent Orioles squad that had a young upstart named Cal Ripken Junior playing shortstop, and a slugger named Eddie Murray depositing baseballs all over the Veterans Stadium outfield bleachers. The Phillies rode an unbelievable run in September, led primarily by a torrid offensive month by Joe Morgan. I remember being a kid at the September 19th game at the Vet that season (which happened to be my birthday) with my grandfather, and getting excited to see the words “Happy Birthday Joe” on the Phanavision (which happened to be newly installed at the Vet that season). Soon afterward was a live shot of Joe Morgan patrolling second base. It was Morgan’s birthday as well, and he slugged 2 homers that night in another win that paced the Phillies’ run to the post season. It was hardly the post-season that fans had envisioned during Spring Training of ’83, to say the least.
Another example of a team that had less than stellar expectations was the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, who rode Orel Hershiser‘s arm to the World Series and slayed the mighty Oakland A’s and the “Bash Brother” duo of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. How unlikely was that Dodgers team to win it all? Consider that they had no players drive in 100 runs (Kirk Gibson won the MVP that season with 25 homers and 76 RBI in 150 games), and one dominant pitcher in Hershiser, who had 23 wins and a 2.26 ERA in a season where home runs were being slugged at a record pace. yet the most memorable of all homers that year was the one off the bat of Gibson into the right field bleachers surrendered by Dennis Eckersley in the World Series. Once again, doubtless that the fans of Los Angeles could have envisioned that team to make it to the World Series, let alone defeat Tony LaRussa‘s Oakland juggernaut.
There were other examples of teams that played beyond expectations such as the 1991 Twins, who toppled the upstart Braves on the back of Kirby Puckett, or even a team like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 83 games yet made it to the World Series and won, with the assistance of a Detroit Tigers’ defensive implosion.
The 2013 Phillies, in my opinion, have a marked advantage over many of these teams that I have mentioned. If they stay healthy, which is of course the key to most teams’ success, they still boast a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They have reinforced their bullpen, which cost them at least 10 wins last season, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard seem healthier than they have been in the past couple of seasons. The outfield is an obvious and glaring question mark, but I distinctly remember the 1993 team living the entire season with platoon situations all over the field, and players like Incaviglia, Milt Thompson and Jim Eisenreich having career-best defense in the outfield, all at the same time. Who is to say the same cannot happen with the Phillies’ current outfield tandem?
Most national pundits have admitted that a healthy Phillies squad can certainly be a contender, but are heavily favoring the Nationals and Braves in the NL East, a trend that I really do not have a problem with. The Phillies have one thing that many of the favored teams do not, which is extensive post-season experience, which can make them lethal in the playoffs. The post-season has often been defined not by the dominant team as of late, but rather the club with the hottest pitching and key hitting at the right time. To any fans that may be discouraged, take solace as I do in the fact that baseball as a whole has proven repeatedly that low expectations do not necessarily result in a lack of success overall, and could actually culminate in your team still playing beyond September.
Unless, of course, you are a Mets fan…Tags: Ben Revere, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Darin Ruf, Delmon Young, Domonic Brown, expectations, John Mayberry Jr., MLB, Philadelphia Phillies, reward, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard